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Supporting America's Heroes- How to Select a Police, Firefighters or Veterans Charity

by Andrew Heck, Charity Navigator

November 10, 2005

 
 

FlagThe brave response by police and firefighters to the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 reminded Americans of the invaluable service these courageous men and women provide to our communities. Similarly, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought renewed attention to the heroic sacrifices made by the men and women serving in the armed forces and by the families who support them. Americans have many different ways of expressing their gratitude for the service provided by police, firefighters, and men and women in the military. This gratitude is evident in the multitude of American flags, yellow ribbons, and shield decals you see everyday on cars, trees, and front doors.

Many Americans wish to show their support for those risking their lives to keep us safe by donating to charities that promise to provide assistance to police, firefighters, military veterans, and their families. Unfortunately, not all of these charities are spending your money well. In fact, many of the veterans, police, and firefighters charities evaluated by Charity Navigator rank among the least efficient charities that we rate. A recent investigation conducted by Matthew Kauffman of the Hartford Courant found that "veterans' groups are more than twice as likely as other charities to use professional solicitors, which typically keep 70 to 90 cents of every dollar they raise. As a result, veterans' charities overall spend a vastly greater percentage of their budgets on fundraising, leaving less money available to help ex-GIs struggling with health care, housing or financial problems."

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Bogus Veterans' Charities

Of the 22 veterans charities evaluated by Charity Navigator more than 1/3 have fundraising expenses over 20%, with 3 charities spending more than 50% on fundraising and 2 charities spending more than 95% of your donations on fundraising!

Of the 18 police and firefighter charities evaluated by Charity Navigator 12 attribute more than 20% of their expenses to fundraising costs. Of these, 7 are spending more than 75% on fundraising, with one police charity spending more than 90% on fundraising!

Any charity that spends money inefficiently is doing a disservice to both its donors and its intended beneficiaries, but the fact that these charities are using the good name of America 's heroes to raise donations and then end up spending most of these donations on fundraising or administration is especially sad. Donors become victims when their donations are not used to benefit their local police, firefighters or service men and women as they had thought. Police, firefighters, and veterans are doubly hurt both because they don't receive the assistance they need, and because people who give to a poorly-run, inefficient charity once, may be hesitant to donate to a well-run police, firefighters, or veterans charity in the future.

In order to stop the inefficient, poorly-run police, firefighters, and veterans charities from absorbing donations that would otherwise go to more efficient charities donors need to make sure they know how a charity spends its money before they donate. More importantly, police, firefighters, and veterans must speak out against those raising funds in their name and then spending these funds inefficiently. The good guys need speak up and let donors know that these groups do not represent them.

If donors and well-run charities unite, hopefully someday there will be no donations left for unscrupulous, poorly-run, inefficient charities using the good name of America's finest and bravest. Until then, donors can use some of the tips below to help them find a police, firefighters, or veterans charity that will make sure that their donation reaches these brave men and women.

  • Give locally. Don't trust a charity based in another state that promises that it will give money to police, firefighters or veterans in your state. If you want to support your local or state police, fire station, or military unit contact them directly and find out where they prefer to have donations given.
  • Never give over the phone. Of the charities with high fundraising expenses, much of their money is spent on for-profit telemarketing companies. These companies often charge the charity 20 to 90 cents of each dollar raised. That's more of your money not going to those protecting you.
  • Look at the charity's finances for yourself. Ask to see a copy of the charity's annual report or a brochure describing its mission, accomplishments and a current financial statement. You can also request a copy of the organization's IRS form 990. Federal law requires nonprofit organizations to provide their last 3 IRS form 990s (tax returns) within 30 days of your request. Charity Navigator has detailed analysis of the financial records of many police, firefighters, and veterans groups on our site. The lists below show some of the best and worst police and firefighters, and veterans' charities that we currently evaluate.

Best

Worst

   
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